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Posties, Paradoxes and the Pandemic

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One of the workers at Australia Post reportedly showed up at the distribution centre one day with his arm covered from wrist to elbow in "gold" watches bought for $5 each at the Queen Victoria markets. He pointed at them and beamed with pride. Everybody had a good laugh, but the frustration beneath the joke was clear: where are our bonuses?

While the Morrison Government was honing in on the management of Australia Post for the bonuses given to executives (you remember: the $20,000 watch scandal) it was simultaneously making life harder for those who were doing all the work to get us our parcels and mail during the lockdowns.

A survey run by the Communications Workers Union made the rounds at the distribution centres in Preston and Narre Warren to try to quantify the experiences of postal workers during 2020 and moving forward. Three quarters of those surveyed said they were unable to take meal breaks due to the workload intensification they were experiencing. Two thirds said they had to speed along footpaths in order to meet their increased daily targets. All of this is a result of what is known as the Alternate Day Model, which effectively doubled their workload due to its requirement to do two routes in a day. At the same time, one in four postie jobs were cut, further increasing the workload on the remaining workers.

Two thirds said they had to speed along footpaths in order to meet their increased daily targets.

The survey points to the fact that the government and the management of Australia Post live in an alternate reality to what is happening on the ground. You can read the drama play out for yourself in the Senate Committee regarding The future of Australia Post’s service delivery.

Come with us now, down the rabbit hole.

It's truly baffling reading. The stated aim of the Committee was to "consider temporary changes to the regulation of Australia Post’s service delivery standards and postal service timeframes in the context of COVID-19." The temporary changes came into effect in May 2020, before the establishment of the Committee and were operational throughout the year.

At the heart of the matter is one slide from one PowerPoint presentation meant to explain the changes to the workers who would be affected. Four hypothetical workers and their weekly schedules are laid out, both pre- and post-change. Transition from the past to the present, the fourth worker is brutally wiped out in front of the audience. They disappear and their whereabouts is not accounted for. At the same time, the remaining three workers are now performing double the work they were doing before.

It is unclear whether the desire to remove the fourth worker has led to the increase in workload, or the desire to increase the workload has led to a reduction in the staff Australia Post now needs to employ. What is clear is that the narrative being pushed in order to drive the restructure was that the financial situation of Australia Post is terribly dire. Budget cuts, therefore, were necessary to stay afloat. Except this is not true. Hard evidence says that parcel volumes were up 37.5% in April 2020 compared to the previous month. The lockdown, paired with the government's own messaging to "Shop Local" using online commerce caused demand to skyrocket, thus bringing in more revenue.

Australia Post denies everything. They say the fourth worker has gone back to the distribution centre to assist with increasing demand in the sorting and packing areas, but this is not accounted for anywhere in the supporting documentation or the new regulations themselves. They are simply gone. Assassination by omission. And with them, poof, one quarter of the workforce is gone too.

The Minister himself, Paul Fletcher, also gave evidence to the Committe saying that the increased parcel demand will be handled by a reallocation from letter-only posties to aiding in the delivery of parcels. (The delivery of letters, not just parcels, increased during the same time period by the way. This is a whole other point of contention.) The problem, as pointed out in a dissenting report by the Labor senators on the Committee, is that letter-only posties DO NOT EXIST and never have. The Committee, however, was satisfied with this explanation. The mind boggles.

The split in reality has caused three separate reports to be released by the Committee: one endorsed by the Liberal chair of the group, and two dissenting reports by Labor and the Greens, respectively.

In the chaos, the CWU's submission makes a lot of sense. Their position is simply that the changes are unsustainable. Forgetting hypothetical workers for a moment, the experience of the very real workers carrying out the deliveries is that the new structure is dangerous and unfair.

The survey that circulated around the distribution centres was just to find the size and depth of the problem. When its findings were dismissed, the union escalated its efforts. Now, a petition signed by posties has been presented to the Government and the management of Australia Post saying that the changes have been a failure and cannot be permitted to continue. The Acting CEO Rodney Boys, however, dismissed this overwhelming vote of no confidence in the changes. He painted the workers as a minority (they're not) in some out-of-the-way part of Victoria (that part being Melbourne). Boys, then claimed that postal workers actually supported the changes, but seemingly has no evidence to back this claim. The Government did not press him further. Once again, it seems as if they exist in a parallel reality.

With the worst of the pandemic (hopefully) behind us due to vaccinations being rolled out and cases remaining low, some kind of normalcy is returning to our lives. Football season is starting next week. The pubs are open. But is the genie out of the bottle in industries that were upended in 2020?

The temporary Regulations are in place until June 30 of this year, but beyond that it remains to be seen whether the reality experienced by overworked postal employees will be accepted by Australia Post and the Liberal Party. We are truly through the looking glass here.

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